Over the last decade, BDSM has been booming. Ever since the worldwide popularity of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” there has been more public discussion of BDSM practices and a veritable explosion of BDSM products worldwide. Now, with even more companies setting their sights on worldwide markets, it’s important to know how the markets you wish to sell in may differ from the U.S. With the help of Michael Guilfoyle, XR Brands’ director of international marketing and business development, we’re going to take a look at Europe and talk about what you should know before launching your BDSM products in the E.U.

Attitudes about sex

First things first, it’s important to acknowledge that attitudes towards sex can differ wildly between the U.S. and Europe. “Sex is much more ‘front and center’ many places in Europe,” Guilfoyle says. “Stores carrying products for sex and BDSM are often placed in high-traffic areas and have bold window displays.”

Imagine walking down Fifth Avenue in NYC, Newbury Street in Boston, or The Grove in Los Angeles and seeing a full-on BDSM display in the windows. It just wouldn’t happen. But you can step right off Dam Square in Amsterdam and see one. Even when adult shops land high-traffic locations in the U.S., they are much more subdued with frosted windows or pretty lingerie displays facing the street and BDSM products hidden in the rear of the store. While that’s true in some places in Europe, many areas are bolder.

A market that is bigger … and smaller

When it comes to the European market, size matters! Population-wise Europe is about twice as big as the U.S. Even when we limit our focus to the E.U., the population is still roughly 1/3 larger than the U.S. From here we can assume that most product categories and niches will be larger simply due to population size. At the same time, however, stores, as well as homes in Europe, tend to be smaller than those in the U.S., meaning stores will offer fewer brand and item options for the customer. Additionally, smaller homes means less storage, meaning less stuff. This means that for most products to be highly successful, it either needs to be the kind of high-quality item that one would be willing to devote space to, or a disposable, lower-priced item consumers buy on vacation and leave behind in the hotel room when they head home.

What products are popular?

When asked about BDSM product popularity in Europe, Guilfoyle says that leather and harder-edged items tend to do very well. “Our more advanced line is by far the biggest seller in Europe,” Michael says. “Last year metal anal plugs and pumps ran neck and neck for second place.”

What to know before trying to sell in Europe

Selling in Europe comes with its own regulatory hurdles — some of the world’s highest — that apply to sex products in general. ISO9000 regulations for the entire sex toy industry are being worked on by mostly European industry in Switzerland as we speak. These regulations apply to toys in general rather than BDSM items specifically, and manufacturers may find that their items must undergo as many as six different tests and certifications to be able to be sold in the region. As testing needs to be funded, the amount of testing required can potentially impact the proportion of higher-end items available. Manufacturers may find that, especially in a market that isn’t clamoring for low-cost items, it is easier to fund testing for high-end products.

How to succeed

When it comes to making your BDSM products a success in Europe, Guilfoyle has some solid advice for manufacturers: “Make it authentic, make it of the correct quality for your targeted consumer, and know that there will be plenty of competition. As the world has evolved to discuss BDSM more publicly, more competitors have stepped into every market globally. A few years ago, there were maybe five companies that really dominated the BDSM game. As interest has grown globally, competitors have come from everywhere.”

Guilfoyle reminds us that almost every distributor in Europe has its own BDSM line; so bringing something special to the table is essential. Geographically, cheaper, low-investment gear is easy to get direct from China so releasing a standard leather cuff won’t get much attention in the market. Quality is key and backing it with strong branding and compelling messaging will help elevate your BDSM gear in this growing market.

Rebecca Weinberg is the president of XR Brands.

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